MEXICO | Mexico’s narco news forums

Reported by Camilo Vargas, Trevor Bach, Sadef Kully and Kathryn Brenzel
In March 2011, police in Acapulco inspected a banner left by drug cartels near five dismembered bodies. (AP Photo/Bernardino Hernandez)

In March 2011, police in Acapulco inspected a banner left by drug cartels near five dismembered bodies. (AP Photo/Bernardino Hernandez)

By Trevor Bach

Since December 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón launched a widespread crackdown on Mexico’s drug cartels, the country’s drug wars have claimed more than 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands more have gone missing, hundreds of thousands have had to flee their homes.

But there is also another prominent victim of the drug wars: Mexico’s free press.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has confirmed 16 journalists have been murdered in the country for their reporting since 2006. Since the  same year, another 38 media workers have also been killed, but without thorough investigations into the crimes, the motives behind their murders remain unconfirmed—and their killers remain free. Despite the legislature’s recent passage of a bill that federalizes crimes against freedom of expression, CPJ cites a 90 percent impunity rate in journalist murders in Mexico, among   the highest in the world.

The threats to journalists—almost always from the drug cartels, but also sometimes from corrupt officials—are constant and real. Publishers, editors,  and reporters know that just one wrong sentence could cost a journalist’s life, and in response many Mexican news organizations have reduced their coverage of the drug war to only the most superficial reporting.

Others have stopped reporting on the cartels entirely. After two grenade attacks on its office, El Mañana, the leading newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, a city of roughly 400,000 just across the Rio Grande from Texas, in the state of Tamaulipas, announced it was finished reporting on the drug war until further notice. “The company’s editorial and administrative board has been forced to make this regrettable decision,” the paper wrote in a May 2012 editorial, “by circumstances we are all familiar with, and by the lack of adequate conditions for freely exercising professional journalism.”

In the absence of traditional reporting, Mexico’s citizenry has, to varying degrees, sought to fill in the gaps. Numerous blogs—dubbed narco blogs because of their content—have been created exclusively to provide reports on the drug war. Local Twitter hashtags serve as drug war information aggregators, and Facebook groups have sprung up as de-facto narco news forums. The bloggers and social media users, facing the same threats as traditional journalists, often work in anonymity—but they’ve still been targeted. In September 2011, 39-year-old Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, a journalist who reported on the cartels for social media under the pseudonym “The Girl from Laredo,” was found decapitated along a Tamaulipas roadside, a note left on her body from the Zetas’ drug cartel declaring she had been killed for reporting on social media.

Mexico’s social media users are clearly engaged—a February Microsoft study found that the number of daily tweets in Mexico spikes when violence erupts and decreases again during periods of calm, the biggest jump occurring in August 2011, when a casino bombing in Monterrey killed 53. “The popularity and prevalence of tweets related to the Drug War highlights that citizens are turning to Twitter to obtain and share information about the happenings in key cities where violence is occurring,” the authors wrote.

But Mexico’s social media coverage of the drug wars has limited usefulness.  Facebook posts and tweets can be unreliable and often provide only cursory information—as do most of the narco blog posts, many of which are merely repostings of the minimalist drug war coverage in traditional media.

“They still don’t give you context,” Ana Arana, director of the MEPI Foundation, an investigative journalism project focusing on press freedom in Mexico, said of the blogs. “They still don’t connect the dots.”

As the epicenter of the rivalry between the powerful Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, Tamaulipas is among the places most impacted by the violence and media self-censorship. The use of social media in the state to report on the violence has been prolific—Twitter users post information to the hashtag of the state’s largest city, @Reynosafollow, and a diligently-monitored Facebook group, Valor por Tamaulipas, appears to serve as an effective community watch forum—but even so, it’s not nearly enough. The residents of Tamaulipas, like their compatriots all over Mexico,  remain egregiously underinformed about the drug war that is terrorizing their country.

“It’s just a war,” said Arana. “And the first thing that dies in a war is truth.”